Music Reviews

Arctic Sunrise: Across The Ice

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Oct 12 2019
Artist: Arctic Sunrise
Title: Across The Ice
Format: CD + Download
Label: Echozone (@)
Rated: *****
'Across The Ice' is the third album by the German synthpop duo of Torsten Verlinden (vocals) and Steve Baltes (electronics) and they waste no time in getting down to business. Songs are slicker, vocals stronger than ever. It's albums like this that exemplify the difference in this type of electronic-based pop music from Europe vs. the United States. Here synthpop is still considered quirky, novelty and/or dance-oriented, while in Europe it is taken more seriously. (Not that Europeans don't care for the occasional wacky bit of electronica.) Arctic Sunrise is definitely in the more serious vein, and while not really dark, there is very little tongue-in-cheek. Philosophical themes tend to prevail on 'Across The Ice' - Life and Death; Love and Loss; Climate Change/Global Warming; Uncertainty of the Future, etc. Steve Baltes has become even more proficient and sophisticated at orchestrating Arctic Sunrise's sound, providing the best and most varied background possible for Torsten's vocals. For his part I believe Torsten has upped his game considerably in the vocal department with a bolder and more emotionally gripping performance than ever before. Standout tracks are "Surrender," "Stars," "Fly" and "Time Is On Our Side." I also like the instrumental "SSP84" which shows some diversity. There is also a cover of the Kate Bush chestnut, "Running Up That Hill" which I consider superfluous. It’s not that Arctic Sunrise do a poor job of covering it as it’s quite listenable, it’s just that they add nothing novel to the song. (Just recently Johnathan|Christian also covered the song on their 'Dark Hallways' album, and they didn't fare any better on my opinion.) Aside from that though, 'Across The Ice' is a worthy effort.

Bawrut: Pronto Arpeggio

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Sep 26 2019
Artist: Bawrut
Title: Pronto Arpeggio
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Ransom Note
Bawrut’s latest EP introduces itself (literally, in the press release) by saying “Summer’s in the air”, but with a September release date it feels like it might be just a little late. Fittingly though, underneath the soft top end of these tracks is driving, purposeful synth-house music perfectly suited to colder climes as well as warmer ones. Three long and deep original tracks are complimented by a couple of shorter remixes that bring the breadth.

The title track does exactly what its title suggests, a steady groove of extremely bright-sounding synth arpeggios over a steady tapping groove. After four minutes there’s a very confident tempo drop and extended breakdown, with the synths continuing to shift tempo even after the kick’s come back in- essentially a break-and-build lasting three minutes, which possibly pushes its luck too far on some dancefloors I would expect, but curious for home listening, and satisfying when the original groove finally re-establishes itself. KiNK’s remix simplifies things, avoiding the more complex elements and keeping things pulsing more conventionally, but still successfully.

“Shooree” is a clap-driven groove built around a familiar 3-into-4 pattern that proceeds with a simple relentlessness and slightly tribal vibe, pushed along by vocal noises. “Atchu” takes this a couple of steps further, sampling a rap mantra that sounds somehow both playground and hip-hop over a more acid-infused layout, with some lovely distorted rumble-punches for good measure. Sadly “Atchu” doesn’t get a remix, which is a shame as it might be the most interesting and distinctive track in the pack. On “Shooree”, again the remix has a rationalising effect, with the Ruf Dug remix keeping things simple and pushing the synthpoppy melodies forward in a cheery and inoffensive way, that’s a modern twist on the old balearic vibe, in a way.

Always reliable stuff from Ransom Note Records.

IIOIOIOII: Chroma + Chromatic

 Posted by Marc Tater (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Sep 25 2019
Artist: IIOIOIOII (@)
Title: Chroma + Chromatic
Format: 2 x CD (double CD)
Label: AnalogueTrash (@)
Distributor: Bandcamp
Rated: *****
Formed in 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina, IIOIOIOII (simply pronounced I.O.) is the solo project of the Electronic musician Chris Gurney. After the self-released debut "Reflect" in late 2012 he could enter a deal with the British Juggernaut label to release his highly acclaimed follow-up album "Sun", which can be surely named as a highlight of this far too early disbanded label. After getting signed in 2016 with the Manchester-based Analogue Trash label and the release of the third album "Post Brimstone (Expanded Edition)", Chris nowaddays returns to provide his fourth album "Chroma + Chromatic" and this is undoubtly his most matured and coherent sounding album so far.

This all new album can be seen as classic double-CD release. "Chroma" presents the listener 10 completely new compositions, while "Chromatic" acts globally like the remix companion release although it has its very own flavor. IIOIOIOII's musically influences taking inspiration out of all forms of darker-minded Synth-Electronica although the globally mood behind Chris' outfit is fragile and in some cases sentimental. Over all musically influences stands generally Synthpop with Downtempo- but also Ambient-like ingredients. Chris impresses the most with his well-sorted compositions, as they follow clear structures and guidelines.

Same counts for his crafty programming skills. Let's pick out one of the true pearls of the 10 new "Chroma"-tracks, "Haloed Eyes" for example. It's an adorable moody Synthpop tune with fabolous Synth-pads widely thrown into the stereo field and a catchy chorus. Generally I prefer the rather layered and sentimental tunes over the ones which tend to build dancefloor-compatibility. It may belongs almost to his calm vocal performance that this album gives out a sedating impression. It is definitely more suitable to get consumed under a good pair of headphones instead to get dropped into the anonymity of the club-fodder arsenal.

If this crafty and beautiful produced album needs a word of crticism, well, Chris' kind to integrate his vocals into the track follows to my taste a bit too often the same register. His calm timbre sounds well but also relatively foreseeable, at times a bit too monotonous and could need here and there a bit more emotional outbursts to surprise.

Also the second part of this DCD package entitled "Chromatic" needs some introductional words. First off you'll get the usual doze of remix contributions to the original "Chroma" tracks by such projcts among others like Grendel, Adoration Destroyed, Glass Apple Bonzai, or The Rain Within.
Especially the refreshing Grendel remix of "Haloed Eyes" with its saxophone inserts sets a high level and transforms this track to well usable dancefloor tune. Also quite enjoyable are those rather Synthwave-influenced remix works of Glass Apple Bonzai ("Cyan Dream") or The Rain Within ("Digital Moon"). Although most of the remixes here are radical reworkings of the original songs I still think that those contributions only work well regarding business relations. To me the original compositions of the artist are more important and reflect better the musically talent behind. Luckily you'll get rewarded with two further original tracks, "Over" and "Path to Lose".

There's nothing wrong with a purchase of this well-thought produced album and it features a lot of attactive ingredients of Chris Gurney's musically development throughout the years. And since I am quite late (again...) to review it, I must admit, that it perfectly fits from its mood to the beginning of the autumn days. Stuff to sink in under headphones or in front of a fireside.

Felix Lee: Inna Daze

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Sep 25 2019
Artist: Felix Lee
Title: Inna Daze
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Planet Mu
Felix Lee’s debut album treads an interesting line inbetween dark, faintly gothic male-vocalled synthwave and the more cerebral, slow and sub-bass atmospherics more commonly associated with Planet Mu.

It avoids any temptation towards retro sounds, with fresh and sharp production, and complex beat work. In terms of sound space, it often goes big, with tracks like “Void” with its thick chord pads going very dramatic, “Smoke” with its gutbusting subbass and kicks, and a really nice interplay between driving synth urgency and sparse beats on “Still Torn” and the attitude-and-distortion-laden end track “Slow Decay”.

But it also retains a strong sense of introspection, mainly thanks to underplayed vocals, which can be heard in play in tracks like a slightly Infusion-ish “Headless”, or thoroughly pessimistic opener “KOH”. Slightly sparser instrumentals like “Unified” help out with this too.

Most of the tracks are vocal, around half of them with guests, and some connect with the sound better than others. In “Focused”, a distinctly grime-centric rap from Yayoyanoh changes the flavour, reducing the music to a backing pattern, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, it ends up being the least successful part of the album. On the flip side to that, Gaika’s still low-energy but more melodic contribution to “Sangre” is a much better fusion of sounds, and is nicely emotive.

Angelspit: Bang Operative

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Sep 20 2019
Artist: Angelspit
Title: Bang Operative
Format: CD + Download
Label: Black Pill Red Pill
After giving previous album “Black Dog Bite” a glowing review a couple of years ago (comparing it to acts like Blue Stahli and Celldweller), and being impressed with the Angelspit-produced Miss Ballistic album earlier this year as well, Angelspit’s eight album was a welcome arrival, and I’m happy to report it continues in much the same vein as before. It’s thick, angry, sharply produced electro-metal with muscle and vigour, littered with sharp percussive drops, heavy synth basses and distortion, all topped with frustrated anti-media, anti-celebrity, anti-quite-a-lot-of-things lyrics (exemplified in tracks like “No Guillotine, No Crown”).

The vocals are still largely restrained to one-note or narrow melodic ranges, befitting of the genre but this is what holds it back from having a real standout vocal hook that could cross over into radio land. Highlights that come close include “Celebrity Disorder”, or the on-the-nose but strangely satisfying “Jesus Disguise”.

Some tracks wear a slightly more retro and synthwave vibe on their sleeve, like the curiously catchy “Fear Monger” with its slightly Vangelis-esque and sci-fi melody line, the properly 80’s-esque final track “Promise Of Gold”, or the nicely dramatic “Play Rough” with its more understated spoken-word approach. Broadly I think the tracks with an element of drama and change, such as “HexenjÄger” (based on a soundtrack piece Angelspit originally produced for a short film) bring a breadth and are maybe more successful than the relentless wall-of-sound numbers.

It’s thirteen slices of roughly-four-minute-long angry anti-pop that deserves to find a wide audience, not just in the techno-emo area that it’s initially targeting.

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